Friday, April 16, 2010

New Harmony, Evans Woollen and Architecture

Last week the annual Indiana preserva-tion conference, with the new name of Preserving Historic Places, took place in New Harmony, Indiana. I have an incredible fondness for New Harmony. The site of two failed 19th Century Utopian communities, it is very close to an architectural Utopia with amazing buildngs from the 1810s to the 1990s. The Rappite architecture beginning in 1815 includes lovely log cabins with innovative insulation and air lock entries to keep the cold Indiana winds from blowing into the houses. Their brick community buildings are resplendent.

The residential buildings of the Owenite years, and the grand Workingman's Institute and Thrall's Opera House, are equally beautiful. And the Victorian era, after the Utopian failures, was also kind to this small town, leaving grand and modest homes and a beautiful downtown commercial area.

Even tiny infill ranches from the 1950s are sweet in New Harmony. Mid-Century Modern has a small voice, as well.

Then Jane Owen, starting in the 1970s has given us the Richard Meier Athenaeum, a building memorable enough to be listed on Meier's biography, and the Philip Johnson Roofless Church. Proclaimed by Johnson protege, Dean of the School of Architecture at University of Houston---and soon to be New Harmony resident---Joe Mashburn,`to be one of Johnson's best buildings.

The town amazes me and is reason enough for a visit. But there was so much more.

Included in the offerings for the conference was a talk by Bernhard Karpf,associate partner of Richard Meier & Partners, about the Athenaeum.

But the two star performances of the conference were the panel discussion by Joe Mashburn, Bernhard Karpf and Evans Woollen and, of course, the keynote address by Paul Goldberger, the architecture critic for the New Yorker. I may talk about Goldberger some other time. For me the funnest moment came in the panel discussion with Mashburn, Woollen and Karpf (that's Woollen in the center of the picture).

After brief introductions, and a few planned questions the moderator turned the questioning over to the crowd. I screwed up my courage and asked the last question of the day:

"Richard Meier said that light is one of his favorite building materials. If each of you had to come up with one sentence like that to describe your own work, what would you say?"

Berhard Karpf punted on this question, claiming to not have much architecture to draw conclusions from. Mashburn said that he and his partner (his wife) relied on the power of the landscape to shape their thoughts about what should be built. And Karpf made the intersting point that well-known architects all possess one similar trait, which is that they "are all good marketers." They know how to talk about their work in order to get other people talking about and appreciating it. He also confessed that he didn't really appreciate Philip Johnson's work. [perhaps a bit snarky considering the company]

But the big payoff was getting this answer from the leprechaunish Evans Woollen, one of my Indianapolis architect heroes:

"For me, every building is a whole new venture into a different context, different community. My buildings are crazily different from each other. I've been criticized for that but it's not an accident. My buildings are purposely inconsistent." Woollen used the New Harmony Inn as an example. He built that building to blend into the landscape. It was not intended to stand out and compete but to harmonize with New Harmony. And that it does. And there's a little insight into an interesting modernist architect's brain.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Oh Carmel, you hurt my eyes!

Drove to Carmel, Indiana, today to take a picture of the first home that Avriel Shull, a modern home designer/builder, constructed in that town when she was 23. Her house, the Golden Unicorn, holds up well as a design, despite its age. The Golden Unicorn, named for the animal Avriel mounted by the door was built in 1955 as I recall.

What doesn't work as a design statement in that town is the new construction going up along Rangeline Road. Ouch! My eyes hurt when I see all the cribbed fake historic building styles jammed into this one hulking behemoth of a building.
Why? With the funds that Carmel has available and that Mayor Brainard is willing to spend, why put money into a cobbled together copy of old architectural styles? Wouldn't it be great if Carmel would spend its municipal funds on great new, Modern architecture? Instead of copying a Palladian design for your Performing Arts Center, why not a Calatrava or even a Gehry?

With the funding muscle that Carmel can muster, even with a mayor embattled over his budgets, why shouldn't that town be the next midwestern mecca of modern design? Show us something new. Spend your money on fabulous, even controversial designs, not on hackneyed copies of buildings with designs that look more or less like styles from more than 100 years ago. Carmel seems to be the main player in the public architectural game around here these days. It's sad that they are playing it so safe and uninterestingly.